Generations of phwoar
Like many games of its type, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines features a tiny graphic in its text boxes to remind players they can press a button to advance to the next line. Usually the graphic is of an X or O button pressing itself, but Oreshika‘s is of a little weasel pushing a button with its nose.
It’s animated, and viewed from the side the little weasel can also look just like a person, sitting on their knees Japanese-style, bowing respectfully, over and over. That behavior’s almost emblematic of the game’s attitude, as it’s so eager to let players do what they like (sometimes to their own detriment) that it almost comes off as desperate.
But hey, they’re gonna be dead soon anyway, so perhaps some deference is warranted.
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines (PS Vita [Reviewed], PlayStation TV)
Developer: Alfa System
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Released: March 3, 2015
About that “dead soon” thing: It’s the premise of the game. Players start as the head of a Japanese clan (that they construct themselves in a rather detailed character-creation interface), murdered to a man in a gruesome ritual of human sacrifice after being framed for the disasters rocking 12th-century Kyoto. Fate is kind, though, and a few members are brought back to life to exact revenge upon the wrongdoers. Unfortunately, everything has a cost, and the price for a second chance is the dual curses of Ephemerality and Broken Lineage. The first curse dooms all members of the clan to drop dead two years after their birth. The second prevents them from having offspring with humans. Talk about a double-whammy!
Thus the mission is set: Continue the family line long enough to break the curses, by having children with willing gods and spirits (sidestepping the “Broken Lineage” part), and having those children have their own children before their two years are up, in addition to becoming strong enough to defeat the villain that cursed the clan in the first place. It’s a morbid and deliciously effective premise, so much so that one wonders why it hasn’t been thought of before.
Except…it has, for Oreshika is technically a sequel to 1999’s Ore no Shikabane wo Koete Yuke, an influential PS1 RPG that involved largely the same concepts. That said, the game never made overseas, which makes it completely new to most players. Its relative age, though, would explain why Oreshika feels like a pleasant throwback to the early years of Japanese RPG-making, when the primary influences on design came from free-roaming dungeon-crawlers like Ultima and Wizardry. That same narrative-light, systems-heavy approach largely defines Oreshika‘s play experience, which should delight fans who’ve begun to chafe under the typically linear storytelling of most JRPGs.
That isn’t to say the story beats are absent. Oreshika has its own complement of directed cutscenes and dialog sequences, most involving named, voiced side characters. They appear during certain missions to drop some exposition or plot twists, and in some cases join the party. The meshing of traditional narrative with the game’s more free-form structure isn’t perfect, and it’s during these moments that the player’s own created clan can feel like extras in what is ostensibly their story. The missteps are mostly inoffensive, though, and to be fair, the story does end up going deeper than might have been possible without the benefit of more defined characters to fall back on.
Then again, perhaps that more traditional story wasn’t that necessary at all, because for me, the most memorable moments in Oreshika come with each passing minute of my family’s short, short life. The game is conducted on a month-to-month basis, either raiding or preparing to raid one of the land’s many labyrinths. The preparation involves buying gear and items for use during the raid, improving the local town to upgrade the various shops’ offerings, or performing the “Rite of Union” with many gods and goddesses to create offspring and ensure the family’s continuation.
That might sound like a lot of babies to magic up, but considering that thanks to the rigors of dungeon-raiding many of the clan’s members will kick the bucket long before their two years are up, a deep bench is critical. Longer games can go for hundreds of generations, and every death can hurt, thanks to the “XCOM effect” of growing attached to people one had a hand in creating and customizing themselves. Dying family even leave semi-randomized “parting words” upon their passing.
Oreshika‘s also quite adept at making that customization feel like it matters. Every new addition to the family takes on the characteristics of their parents, including inheriting physical features (which can turn out hilariously when uniting with some of the less “human” gods), and statistical traits. The game’s item creation system allows “heirloom” gear to be created that gains power every time a departing family member bequeaths it to a new generation. And the game is all too happy to use the PS Vita’s built-in screen capture function to take “family album” photos and collect them like fond mementos of bosses beaten and dungeons delved.
It’s almost strange that for all the time one spends preparing for dungeon raids, Oreshika‘s combat and exploration are designed to be over and done with as quickly as possible. When out in the world, players are literally on the clock. A real-time counter ticks down towards the end of a given month, which lasts between five and ten minutes, depending on how many battles one gets into. At the end, players are given the option to go home, or continue the raid through the next month without rest, increasing the chance that tired or injured party members might die permanently. Given that every character is already born with a very short lifespan, the timers instill a kind of frenzied pace and tension to what could otherwise have been a ponderous affair.
“Frenzied” is also a good way to describe Oreshika‘s visuals, which are a riot of color and animation. The game’s watercolor tones and melding of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock style, traditional folkloric creatures, and anime character design make it one of the best-looking titles on the platform, and possibly one of the prettiest “anime” games since the original Valkyria Chronicles. And thankfully, unlike many games that involve procreation as a concept, Oreshika lacks much of the prurient undertone that make such titles slightly embarrassing to play at times.
As lovely as the characters are environments don’t fare quite as well, as the pace at which a typical dungeon run is conducted doesn’t leave a lot of time to admire the sights. A limited camera setup and frequent use of revisiting (often to unlock a shortcut using a key found in some other dungeon) can also sap locations of their initial charm.
Despite the fact most of us will never have played the game it’s a sequel to, the quality of Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines shines through its gorgeous visuals and deep mechanics. Come to think of it, there’s no more fitting way for a game that’s about leaving a worthwhile legacy to conduct itself.
[This review is based on a digital retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]